Romeo and Juliet is a standard text read in ninth grade classrooms in thousands of high schools. Even though I am the first to push more modern texts, I am also acutely aware of the benefits our classical texts can offer. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t find ways to ensure that my students find relevance and connections to their lives and today’s society.
So, if you are reading this blog, then you want to engage your students through Shakespeare’s classic play Romeo and Juliet. So, without further ado, let me share with you how to teach Romeo and Juliet through the unit that had my students discussing, thinking, reflecting, writing, and more!
Opening Activity: Gender Boxes
My students are trained to look through texts from different lenses, particularly representation lenses: age, race, culture, and gender. Romeo and Juliet is one of the perfect texts to apply this practice.
Shakespeare’s iconic text provides ample opportunity to examine many of these, primarily due to many of the author’s craft moves he uses, such as foil characters and antithesis. One of the obvious lenses to approach this text is through gender lens.
This pre-reading activity (which can be a post-reading activity as well) of using gender boxes can help start the discussion in your classroom.
What is a gender box?
First, what is a gender box? This is an activity I first heard of from the Oakland Men’s Project. Draw two boxes on the board, or you can even bring in two cardboard boxes.
Label one with “Act Like a Man” and the other “Act Like a Lady.” I first start with having students write ways that society may suggest to “Act Like a Man” by asking them, “What does it mean to act like a man?”, “How are men supposed to be different from women?” or what feelings is a man supposed to have.
Then on the outside of the box, we focus on names and ideas applied to people outside of the box.
This same collective discussion repeats for the “Act Like a Lady” box.
Afterward, we reflect on what stereotypes there may be. Their responses during this activity are kept for the duration of the reading of the play so that students can refer to them when discussing character actions and motivations in the play. (We also used it as the basis of a short response analyzing Romeo and Mercutio as foil characters.)
Besides gender, ageism is also another area of representation that can be explored in Romeo and Juliet by comparing and contrasting the parents of the couple as well as the nurse and friar against Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt, Benvolio, and Mercutio.
So if you are wanting students to do a critical analysis of the play, that is another angle to travel through the text for how to teach Romeo and Juliet.
I am a big fan of short responses as ways to check for understanding and to engage students in dialogue. Yes, it can take more time to grade than multiple choice, but it helps my students get to practice not only reading standards but writing as well.
For each act, there were questions they responded to that allowed me to ensure that they were understanding what was happening in the text.
One example question was:
Friar Lawrence says, “Women may fall when there’s no strength in men” at the beginning of Act 2 Scene 3 to Romeo. In other words, you can’t expect women to be faithful when men are so unreliable. What leads the friar to draw this conclusion? Cite text evidence from Act 1 and Act 2 to defend your answer.
If you want this short response and more, visit my TPT store to purchase.
Pairing Romeo and Juliet with more modern texts allow for the opportunity to see how the themes of the play are still very much relevant, which is one way to focus on how to teach Romeo and Juliet. The books selected for book club connect thematically to our anchor text, so I chose books that shared topics of loyalty, tradition, sexism, the folly of youth, individual versus society, and fate.
Students were able to choose with books they read from the following list:
- Pride by Ibi Zoboi
- Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
- Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Beals
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
- Unwind by Neal Shusterman
- Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
Students met for club meetings a few times during the reading process. In their last meeting, they made thematic connections to Romeo and Juliet using a hexagonal activity to identify the ways both texts connected thematically and then on how each theme developed through the text.
The Common Core Standard for 9/10th grade includes the following: Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment.
For this activity, students were presented with paintings representing various scenes from the play in order to analyze the representation of the scene in comparison to the play version. Students have to be able to understand how the paintings draw on and transform some of the play in their interpretation.
This is a standard that, for many teachers, is hard to cover but Romeo and Juliet provides the perfect opportunity to get students to work on the skills necessary to comprehend this Integration of Knowledge standard.
Greeting Card Makers
Shakespeare being Shakespeare, there is no way one could read any of his writing without paying special attention to his way with words. So, using Canva, students pulled words from Romeo and Juliet and turned them into greeting cards.
In our case, we made Valentine’s Day cards since we were reading the play in February. This activity allowed students to pay attention to figurative language, interpret them, and reformulate them into a different type of writing. It was a good break from the reading but still standard-driven.
Romeo and Juliet is all about characters and how their actions drive the plot. A wrap-up activity to do once students finish reading is a Character Autopsy.
Students are assigned either Juliet or Romeo, and in groups, they perform an “autopsy” of the character on paper.
- Head – What the character thinks/believes/dreams/wishes
- Eyes – What the character sees. Look at the character’s world through his/her eyes – how do they see things?
- Heart – What the character loves/feels/believes. What is your character’s motivation?
- Arms – How does the character change? The left arm should describe how he or she was at the beginning of the story, and the right arm should describe how he or she had changed by the end.
- Wrists – In what ways is your character bound by historical/societal restraints? How does the time period affect his or her behavior?
In groups, students find text evidence to support their answers and on large paper, they can draw the character and then fill in these answers.
If you want a copy of the character autopsy lesson I use, join the FREEBIE Library and find it there.
Creative Ideas on How To Teach Romeo and Juliet for High School
Romeo and Juliet is one of those units that have my kids engaged in the narrative and the characters. In part, the story has held up over time because it is a great story but also in part due to the activities we do to explore the many layers of the text. I hope this helped you get ideas on how to teach Romeo and Juliet, and if you are on the fence about covering this Shakespeare play (like I originally was), jump on board and try these activities with your high schoolers!